Eritrean soldiers kill nine civilians in Tigray, Ethiopian regional official says

NAIROBI, April 14 (Reuters) - Eritrean soldiers opened fire in an Ethiopian town on Monday, killing at least nine civilians and wounding more than a dozen others, a local government official told Reuters.

Berhane Gebretsadik, an administrator for Ethiopia’s federally appointed interim Tigray government, said on Wednesday that Ethiopian National Defence forces had intervened to repel the attack in the town of Adwa.

“It was the Eritrean soldiers who killed innocent people,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the National Defence who intervened and saved them (residents), they would have continued killing more people,” he said, referring to Ethiopia’s national army.

The attack shows continued Eritrean military presence in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, despite promises last month that forces would withdraw.

Eritrea’s Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel, did not address a question about whether its soldiers were present in Tigray or not, but said Eritrean soldiers did not typically kill civilians.

“Senseless or wanton killing of civilians by Eritrean soldiers has never occurred in the past decades of long and imposed recurrent wars with Ethiopia,” he told Reuters in a text message.

Eritrean soldiers entered Tigray in November to support embattled federal Ethiopian troops who had been besieged by forces loyal to the regional political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Amnesty International quoted two witnesses to the attack saying two truckloads of Eritrean soldiers had been shooting civilians in the main road.

Two doctors - one at Kidane Meheret hospital in the northern town of Adwa and one in the town of Axum - also told Reuters they had treated patients who said they were injured on Monday. Both declined to be named because of security risks.

When asked to comment on the attack, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said that gunmen from the rival TPLF may have been wearing Eritrean uniforms as cover.

The government declared victory in November after the TPLF withdrew from the regional capital. But fighting has continued in parts of Tigray, where civilians have blamed Eritrean soldiers for mass killings of civilians, looting and gang rapes since the conflict began.

Last month, Reuters journalists in Tigray saw men in Eritrean uniforms in buses with Eritrean license plates driving on the main road that runs through Adwa. The road is dotted with Ethiopian military checkpoints.

Soldiers in Eritrean uniforms walked openly in main towns despite the checkpoints and troops in the area.

Billene said on Wednesday that the men in Eritrean uniforms in the April 12 attack might have be members of the TPLF and accused journalists of not investigating alleged TPLF atrocities.

“I cannot verify claims by TPLF sympathisers and sources,” she said. “In a situation with many vested interests where atrocities by the clique are not being followed up or reported, such claims are very well part of TPLF propaganda.”

Reuters was unable to reach TPLF leaders for a response to Billene’s remarks.

Abiy last month said his government had raised reports of atrocities in Tigray with Eritrea.

His office has said Ethiopia would investigate credible allegations and bring perpetrators to account. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have said reports of atrocities by Eritrean soldiers had been exaggerated. (Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Jon Boyle)